Wednesday, September 16, 2009

F. Organizing to Improve Teaching and Learning with Technology: Collaborative Change

How do we organize the process of improving teaching and learning (with technology)?

At most institutions, the context is a sharp division of labor. The most important divisions:
  • Individual faculty exercise relatively personal, private control over the content and methods of each course. (In most departments, this individual ownership of individual courses is far more meaningful than any collective faculty responsibility for the degree program.)
  • Various facilities, resources and services are controlled by various staff units (e.g., classrooms, course management systems, libraries, study areas and their equipment) and by outside organizations (e.g., Internet sites, Google tools, textbooks, ...)
The implication: each can handle those responsibilities relatively independently of the others. Presumably, the sum of their efforts will yield sufficient return on the institution's investment in expensive technologies such as course management systems, classrooms, and libraries. Many of us had hoped for much more: computing would revolutionize how students learn, what they learn, and who can learn. Perhaps the cost structure of education would be transformed, too. Or maybe not. That division of responsibility has been a major roadblock. Of course, we occasionally overcome that division. I have already talked about how a variety of independent choices by faculty led to a coherent pattern of change in learning activities and outcomes at Reed College in the 1980s. Here's an example of an unusual degree of collaboration. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that this story unfolds at an entrepreneurial research university where team research is the norm. A few years ago, my old undergraduate department, the MIT Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, decided that major curricular change was needed. Faculty started by asking what skills their graduating students would need. To develop those skills, faculty decided, students would need plenty of practice in four activities:
  1. the conceptual work of design,
  2. converting those ideas into plans for something that could be built,
  3. actually constructing the engineered work, and
  4. testing the product.
Faculty called this four step cycle “Conceive – Develop – Implement – Operate (CDIO)”. And they realized that most of CDIO needed to occur outside classrooms, 24 x 7. Conceiving such a reform is one thing. To actually develop, implement and operate such an innovative academic program would require collaboration involving many faculty in the department along with many individuals and groups outside the department. For example, faculty realized that their building (which was due for renovation) was unsuitable for this kind of 24x7 approach. When the institution's architects balked at planning such a facility, the department responded that it would raise its own money and hire its own architects. (One advantage to having a faculty with a track record of raising large sums of money and well-to-do alumni– it changes the internal balance of power!) 'Support staff' and faculty from other departments and offices then teamed to develop these plans, e.g., figuring out how, in order to work on their projects, engineering undergraduates could use keyless access to enter otherwise-locked rooms in the building at any hour of the day or night. That MIT success story is the product of a coalition of effort, complementing a division of responsibility. How are things going at your institution? Who takes responsibility for improving teaching and learning with technology? Do those folks have the respect and budget to carry out that responsibility? For example, how does (or might) your institution deal with questions such as these:
  1. Should your institution switch to Google Mail? What are the educational, budget, and policy implications of relying on such an external service?
  2. The monograph and article no longer have a monopoly on academic expression. More work in the disciplines is being developed and shared through web sites, video, email, and multimedia. In each department, what media do your advanced students need to use to do their projects and communicate professionally? To prepare for that, what kinds of multimedia skills should your entering students learn in the first year ? Who should help them acquire those skills in the first year? How do you assess those skills?
  3. What issues of policy and practice are emerging as a result of ePortfolio use at our institution? Should projects and the portfolios themselves should become part of the student's formal academic record? How long should they be saved? Who has the right to change those records?
  4. Much of what faculty do to improve their teaching is the result of informal learning. How can such learning be improved and extended? What roles might other staff (e.g. librarians) play in helping faculty learn about teaching and learning with technology in their disciplines at other institutions?

“It takes a village.” Steve Gilbert and I have been supporting collaborative change for fifteen years. Here are just two of the ideas and resources we've developed at The TLT Group:
  1. Your institution has what we would call a Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtable if you have a council or conclave that meets regularly, advises the chief academic officer on issues of policy relating to teaching and learning with technology, and convenes many kinds of stakeholders. To assure that the Roundtable balances a variety of points of view, it's important to include faculty (tenure track and adjunct) who represent a variety of degrees and types of technology use, for example. TLTRs have advised on budgets and tricky policy questions. They can help faculty and support staff to understand one another's perspectives. And they can accelerate the sharing of information between junior faculty and senior technology administrators, senior librarians and junior facilities staff, student affairs staff and academic department heads, as TLTR members from all these areas work together to develop a policy position for the institution. A well-functioning TLTR helps the institution seize opportunities and deal with problems that are not the responsibility of any one office, department or segment of the institution. We can help with getting a TLTR underway and providing resources for its agenda.
  2. Gathering information from stakeholders: Flashlight Online, our web-based survey system, has been used by a few institutions to regularly gather input from different segments of the academic community. Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College, has said that Flashlight Online is one of the keys to their strategy for shared governance. Tenure track and adjunct faculty are regularly surveyed so that they can contribute information, ideas and opinions for use in developing new policy at Valencia.
What steps has your institution taken to exercise collaborative responsibility for improving teaching and learning with technology? What do you suggest as next steps? Click on the word “COMMENTS” below, just to the right of my name, to share your observations and suggestions. REFERENCES For a bit more on the history of CDIO at MIT, see William Litant's article, “Learning in a Landmark Laboratory,” in

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